A new paper examines decades of research on receptiveness to opposing views, offering insights into how to evaluate other people’s opinions and why some discussions — even when the goal is civil discourse or idea sharing — explode into angry arguments.
The findings have important implications for journalists, especially as they relate to interviewing unfriendly or distrustful sources.
The academic paper is the latest from Julia Minson, an associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Frances Chen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. They are among a small group of scholars studying how people engage with opinions and perspectives that run counter to their convictions.
The Receptiveness.net website, part of the group’s research project, invites visitors to take an 18-question quiz to measure their receptiveness to opposing viewpoints and compare it with scores of others with similar demographics. The site also provides an interactive algorithm anyone can use to assess how receptive their written messages are likely to sound to those reading them.
That kind of feedback can be helpful for individuals wanting to improve their receptiveness, which Minson and Chen define as “the willingness to listen to, consider, and evaluate opposing opinions in a relatively impartial manner.” While receptiveness is a state of mind, it’s conveyed through words and actions. And when you’re talking with someone who perceives you to be receptive to their opinions, ideas and perspectives, they’re more likely to be receptive to yours, Minson explains.
In many situations, she says, it doesn’t matter how receptive you think you are. “What only counts is what people perceive when they encounter you,” she says.
Minson says demonstrating receptiveness is a critical part of building personal and professional relationships. These days, she notes, we live in a culture of “un-receptiveness.”
“A pernicious problem confronting virtually all human societies is people’s unwillingness to engage with views and opinions they do not share, particularly those they find antithetical to their most dearly held and identity-relevant beliefs,” she and Chen write in “Receptiveness to Opposing Views: Conceptualization and Integrative Review,” forthcoming in the Personality and Social Psychology Review.
“Lack of such willingness is particularly insidious because it prevents groups from effectively solving entire classes of other social-coordination problems that rely on thoughtful engagement with opposing views,” they continue. “For example, the COVID-19 pandemic led to heated clashes over policies to combat the spread of the virus, which motivated many individuals to make health decisions along ideological lines rather than thoughtful consideration of relevant medical facts.”
Key findings about receptiveness
Minson and Chen reviewed dozens of academic studies spanning 1984 to 2021 to get a fuller understanding of what’s known to date about receptiveness to opposing views.
Some of their key findings:
- “People in a receptive mindset are more willing to expose themselves to balanced information on both sides of an issue, give more equal attention to information supporting both perspectives, and evaluate relevant arguments more equitably,” the researchers write.
- Scholars have identified linguistic cues that people use to express and assess one another’s level of receptiveness. “Text rated high on conversational receptiveness contains frequent examples of acknowledgment (e.g., ‘I understand that …’ or ‘I think you’re saying …’), expressions of positive affect (e.g., ‘I’m glad that you …’), and hedging (e.g., ‘Sometimes …’ ‘Perhaps …’),” Minson and Chen write. “Conversely, receptive text is relatively low on negation (e.g., ‘does not,’ ‘will not’) and explanatory language (e.g., ‘because,’ ‘therefore’).”
- People who feel strongly about an issue or idea can be receptive to others’ views without changing or compromising their own opinions. As Minson and Chen point out, “two highly receptive individuals might consider each other’s ideas deeply and, after concluding that reasonable people might endorse either perspective, walk away agreeing to disagree.”
- Some people try to convey receptiveness by being formal and polite — for example, avoiding curse words and calling the other person “sir” or “ma’am.” But doing these things has little or no impact on how receptive others perceive you to be.
- People tend to disparage and stereotype those who disagree with them, unless those who disagree demonstrate receptiveness. In a conversation, when someone exhibits receptiveness, people with opposing views often respond by behaving similarly. “A person who is thoughtfully engaging with our perspective is far more difficult to write off as ill-intentioned or irrational,” the authors explain. “They thus invite behaviors normally reserved for those on our side — thoughtful consideration of their arguments, politeness, and willingness to interact in the future (actions that they, too, will interpret as cues of receptiveness).”
- Receptiveness comes with a cost. “There may be instances when simply allowing extreme views (e.g., justifying child pornography or White supremacy) to be aired could give these perspectives an undeserved legitimacy or traction,” Minson and Chen write, adding that being visibly receptive to opposing views also might upset friends, supporters and others in one’s ingroup. “Yet, although these concerns are legitimate, such instances appear to be much less common than situations wherein receptiveness might be socially constructive.”
Want to be more receptive? HEAR.
Minson has developed a four-part system for helping receptive people ensure their words and actions match their intentions.
“We want to get people to engage in a way that’s respectful and kind and doesn’t mean you have to change your mind,” she says.
She suggests using the acronym HEAR to remember to take the following actions when discussing an issue or idea with someone whose views differ from yours:
- H — Hedge your statements by using phrases such as “This might happen because … ” and “Some people tend to think …”
- E — Emphasize agreement. Point out that you do agree on some things by saying something like “We are both concerned with …” or “I think we both want to …”
- A — Acknowledge other people’s perspectives with statements that start with “What I think you are saying is …” or “I understand that …”
- R — Reframe to the positive. Begin statements with positive phrases such as “I really appreciate it when …” or “I think it’s great when …”
Tips for journalists
Minson says journalists might not appear as receptive as they think they’re being during interviews with sources. Below, she offers three tips to help them build rapport with others, including unfriendly sources and those who assume journalists won’t understand them.
- When you and your source have substantial differences — for example, if you come from a different socioeconomic background or you’re not the same race or ethnicity — acknowledge it. If you sense the source doesn’t trust you, acknowledge that, too.
“I think people should signal listening in the most explicit manner humanly possible, and sometimes that requires acknowledging the fact that the other person might not expect you to listen,” Minson says. “Say, ‘I’m going to try and understand what you’re saying. We’re very different people, and I’m going to try to hear this the way you want to say it — and correct me if I’m wrong.’”
- Be aware that you might be stereotyping or holding false beliefs about a source who supports an issue or idea you oppose.
Minson recommends journalists approach opinions or perspectives they disagree with by asking themselves this question: “Why would a smart, reasonable, good human being hold this view?”
“If you start with the assumption that the person holding that view is a good, thoughtful, intelligent person, you might be able to put yourself in their shoes for a second and understand it from their point of view,” she explained in an email.
- During interviews, periodically restate what a source tells you.
“I think we all have the intuition that if the person we’re interviewing feels understood, there’s going to be a better interview, a better conversation,” Minson says. “The question is, ‘How do we know they’re feeling heard?’ Nodding and making eye contact and smiling and body language are useful. But they’re harder to read than words. Words are just more direct and precise.”
Minson recommends journalists stop during an interview to repeat back what a source has said to show you’re listening. “If you can accurately restate what they said,” she notes, “they can be more confident you understood them.”
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